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25 July 2009 @ 01:49 pm


A really good thing, disguised as a bad thing, happened on Thursday. As I may have mentioned, I go to Thai boxing classes once or twice a week. I’ve done that for well over a year now and am not getting anywhere; I just have no talent at all for that sport. Most of the time, especially in the hours before a class begins but sometimes also during or even right after it, I hate Thai boxing. It’s frustrating, painful and physically draining, I’m self-conscious and aware of my status as only girl in the room, it leaves my arms and legs bumpy with bruises, and the only thing that smells worse than my boxing gloves is the other guy’s boxing glove as it smacks into my face for the twelfth time in fifteen seconds. Still, there are times when I return home on a wave of exhilaration, and on the day after a class, I can feel how grateful my body is for the exercise.


Despite the physical ordeals associated with the sport, the worst parts are in my mind. I hate the moments when we’re pairing up for the first exercise, a few seconds when people float around trying to make eye contact with a good partner. I have a solid feeling of being the least wanted, and I don’t know to what extent that feeling is based in reality, but it’s there. Also, I’m no good at approaching people; on these occasions it becomes clear that I actually don’t know exactly how eye contact works and find it embarrassing.


That’s something I have to go through every time, though, and thus it’s in a way less off-putting than my greatest fear in the context of martial arts: to start crying.


I had an immensely embarrassing experience when I was seventeen and foolishly trying to keep up with a kung fu class consisting of high school guys in top shape and with experience in other martial arts. I had basically avoided all kinds of exercise up until then and had the physical prowess of a limp noodle, but I expected my willpower to do it all for me. I mean, if you just want to do something, then you can; that’s how it had worked for the hero of every single movie I’d seen and book I’d read, so that’s what I expected. (Remember, I was seventeen.) One day I couldn’t take it any more, but held out until I burst helplessly into tears. The instructor tried to talk to me, but I was mortified and went home, never to return again.


Ten years later I was quite good at swordfighting and really, really enjoyed it. We sparred with wooden swords, taking care not to hurt each other seriously although there was quite a lot of bruising involved. All was well until our instructor had the idea of making our sparring more realistic by introducing Japanese kendo practice swords; they’re springy, made from strips of bamboo, and you can hit each other quite fast and hard without risk of injury. The downside of the springiness is that they hit you like a whip, with a stinging pain that brings tears to the eyes rather than the dull thump of a wooden sword, which is a much less disturbing kind of pain. (Yes, I sound like a weirdo, but there it is.) As you’ve probably guessed, one day after holding out for as long as I could, I started crying helplessly. This time I was in a group of people I knew and trusted, and didn’t have quite as massive a macho complex as I’d had in high school. There was even another girl in the group and we discussed the whole crying-in-class issue and why it’s so embarrassing. Still, the experience was so negative that I quit swordfighting after that semester.


In Thai boxing I have no delusions of ability or talent, which makes me accept my ineptitude. It doesn’t hurt my pride to be crushingly defeated if the other guy is actually much better. Still, there’s a frustration in the experience, especially as it can be painful as well, and the worry that I’ll find myself bursting into tears again is always in the back of my head. I don’t know the people in the group (the instructors know my name, but they only have for a couple of months), and I feel the responsibility, as an ambassador for the whole female population, to prove that there’s more to us than nail polish and eyelashes.


Thursday was risky and I knew it. I’d planned to skip Thai boxing because I was feeling a little unstable, but went anyway, and it started out quite well. I and another beginner made futile swipes with arms and legs against each other while being coached by an incredibly beautiful man who I’ll call J, and who’s sort of third-in-command among the instructors. Then we switched around, and I got to spar with J. Not for the first time, I felt hopeless and there was a prickling around my eyes, but this time I knew that I was going to cry, and for the first time I realised that there’s no point in pressing on once you know that. I backed off, the back of my throat trembling, and started freeing myself from the ridiculous gloves. J worriedly asked whether I was alright, and I managed to choke out that it was the wrong day of the month for this sort of thing. He laughed, but in relief rather than derision, and hugged me, which I’d appreciated much more if I hadn’t felt so embarrassed. J went on to spar with the other guy after patting my shoulder and telling me pointedly not to go home, and I set off to lock myself in the girls’ bathroom, as is my wont in these situations. The fact that the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu hall lay between me and my goal made me stop in the little storage room next door instead and I sobbed there for a while, leaning on a homemade winner’s stand. Then I returned, splashed some cold water on my face, truthfully answered “yes” to J’s question whether I was alright, and went along with the final half hour of practice.


I felt elated on my way home. I’d broken a pattern and discovered a working way to deal with something that had been a great fear for years.




On Wednesday, I returned home from my first ever job trip, to a radiation shielding course in Portugal. It was great. There were lectures for at least seven hours each day, but it was still relaxing in a way: staying in a classy hotel with the Atlantic underneath your window, getting fed without having to plan what to eat every day, sipping sangria on the terrace in the evening sun, being surrounded by people you’ve never seen before but who you know that you share at least a professional interest with, the opportunity to go for walks in new surroundings, the feeling of not having to plan anything because it’s all being taken care of for you. Many of the 140 participants had come alone, just like me, and didn’t know anybody else, so striking up conversations was easy. On the final evening, I found myself having dinner and vinho verde outside a little restaurant in a narrow, cobbled street along with a posse that I’d actually chatted up myself. The atmosphere was a bit like in my high school, where, if you saw somebody you knew from a class talking to a stranger, you could just stroll over and join in the conversation without it being seen as an intrusion. (I’ve gathered from movies and other people’s accounts that not all high schools work this way.) Everybody was just keen on expanding their circle, getting to know new people, and all the different nationalities made it easy to keep conversation going. What’s summer like in Colorado, how do you take care of nuclear waste in Switzerland, what are the shielding requirements in Israel, what do people have for lunch in Denmark? There was one other Swede present, and she turned out to have an old acquaintance of mine as a PhD student in her department. The world is small, but Sweden is even smaller. I wrapped the complimentary miniature bottle of Portuguese liquor from my hotel room as a present for my old friend and asked her to take it to him in the hopes of giving him a laugh.


I had expected burning, Southern European heat, but actually the days I spent in Ericeira were quite chilly. It was sunny, but the wind was downright cold, blowing from the North Atlantic. I was also overwhelmed by the waves that ceaselessly crashed in on the rocks surrounding the hotel; I’ve lived by the sea all my life, but what I knew as the sea is really only a narrow, shallow and quite sheltered passage. The Atlantic waves were completely different from those I’m used to seeing: long, slow, and majestic, with an immense power in them. I’m also used to seeing land on the horizon, and the void where the sea faded into the sky gave me the surreal feeling that there was actually nothing there, that if you’d sail that way for long enough you’d just fade away. I’m beginning to understand people who like to travel – it never occurred to me before how powerful an experience seeing a new place can be.

Frescafrescadp on September 3rd, 2009 01:26 pm (UTC)
This makes so much sense to me---I found the hardest part of the two martial arts classes I took (6 weeks each) to be the social aspects! Not that I was any good at the physical side, I wasn't, but really I stopped going because of how socially awkward I felt. Bot times, I was the only woman and I didn't grow up playing with boys, ever, so I really wasn't sure how to do it, and obviously neither were many of the men. I could see them wrestling with "don't hit girls" messages. I only really felt comfortable with the teacher who was totally at ease. I wanted to try boxing classes (traditional kind), but that's mostly men too...
So I really admire you for sticking with it.

Martial arts aside, your experience sounds really very Buddhist, don't you think? Emotions are like the weather--they are real, but they come and go--best to get on with one's life while they do their thing.
mrs_conclusionmrs_conclusion on September 4th, 2009 10:16 am (UTC)
Yes, I'd definitely say it takes more than six weeks to make yourself comfortable in a martial arts group. The key is to just hang on, be there, and let them get used to you; sooner or later, they will, and especially if you show your intentions of not holding back they'll gradually lose their own fear of hurting a girl.

To be completely honest, I don't like sparring with girls myself. I'm not extremely big, but above average height, and most of the girls I meet in martial arts are smaller than me. I'm always a bit awkward around women, feeling as if I crush them with my deep voice and disinterest in stereotypically feminine areas. Luckily, there's a new girl in the thai boxing group now who I think will teach me to let go of that; she only comes to my shoulder, but she's all muscles and attitude.

I never played with boys either, I was the opposite of Eddie Izzard's "male tomboy": a female pansy boy who was inept at all kinds of sports, terrified of bruises and cuts and falling down from trees, and spend most of my time bent over a book. The yearning to be one of the real boys has never left me.